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Social class in Ecuador

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Subject: Ethnic groups in Ecuador
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Social class in Ecuador

Upper class

Ecuador's elite includes Sierra latifundistas (large landowners), Costa agro-exporters, financiers, and industrialists. Commercial and industrial interests overlap with those of agriculture, as families in finance and industry often maintain at least a token interest in agriculture. Indeed, the purchase of land with the profits of commerce has long been considered a critical step in improving a family's standing. In addition to this overlap, there are strong intragroup ties among the elite; kinship and marriage contribute to cohesion. Newly rich families try to turn their economic success into social capital by marrying into older, established families.[1]

Historically, the basis of class in Ecuador lay in the control of land and the labor of those who lived on it. The Spanish conquistadors found the region devoid of valuable minerals and the ready wealth mining provided, so the combination of land and Indians welded together in vast haciendas formed the basis of the colonial economy. The few who held land constituted a rural oligarchy. The rest of society depended on this pivotal group, in varying degrees, for livelihood, political participation, and social identity. Hacienda owners spent much of their time in their urban residences; cities existed principally to serve their wants. The small, ill-defined middle levels of urban professionals found employment serving the commercial and administrative needs of the hacienda. Artisans likewise produced mainly for hacendados.[1]

The hacienda with its resident labor force was the center of the Sierra elite family's influence. The landowner's power within his domain was nearly absolute. Ideally, the hacendado exercised this power beneficently, to protect his followers and dependents. Whatever his inclination, everything from private morality to public religious observances fell within his purview. He settled land disputes among his resident peons, arranged marriages, and dispensed favors.[1]

The Costa elite's lifestyle, values, and economic interests differed from its Sierra counterpart. Trade grew on the coast in response to the impetus of export agriculture. As a result, the elite on the coast had ties to other Latin American seaports and links with world commerce.[1]

The cleavage between the two elite groups, in evidence at independence, continues to play a pivotal role in Ecuadorian politics. Governments parcel out political offices between the two groups, and region of origin is a critical factor in an individual's political career. Economic developments since the 1950s reinforced the dichotomies between the Costa and Sierra. The banana boom of the 1950s and 1960s revived the Costa cacao elite and funneled money to Guayaquil; in contrast, the oil boom of the 1970s benefited Quito.[1]

Agrarian organization provides the model for other social institutions and the exercise of authority in general. Social rank and power, in the elite view, are a natural part of the social order. Individuals are ranked on the basis of birth, race, wealth, breeding, and education. The elite (and middle class) often describes itself as la gente buena (the good people) or la gente decente (the respectable people), contending that it has sufficient breeding, intelligence, and culture to rule others. The subordination of workers, peasants, servants, and all Indians is an essential part of this scheme. In the elite view, gains achieved by subordinates come not as their natural right but through the beneficence of their betters.[1]

Land reform legislation in the 1960s and 1970s left elite hegemony in agriculture and landholding largely unscathed. For one thing, Costa and Sierra landholders mounted an intense effort to oppose those elements of agricultural reform that threatened their diverse interests. For another, the laws were designed to benefit resident agricultural laborers, but on most of the coast and on the more advanced haciendas of the northern and central Sierra, landowners had already begun switching to wage labor, so there were few peons and sharecroppers to receive expropriated land. Instead, the legislation merely freed the owners from their customary obligations to resident laborers. Land reform eliminated the paternal obligations landowners had previously assigned toward their workers.[1]

The landed elite benefited in a number of others ways as well. The price paid in compensation for expropriated private land was often inflated well above market value. Well-connected landlords usually fared better in the courts than their less-privileged tenants. Those peasants who received land rarely became self-supporting and had to supplement their subsistence plots with seasonal wage labor elsewhere. Large landowners gained a supply of temporary wage laborers with limited political ability to make demands beyond a single season's work.[1]

Middle class

Ecuador's diverse middle class is concentrated in cities and larger towns. A minute, ill-defined group during most of the country's history, its numbers grew in the twentieth century. In the late 1970s, estimates based on income indicated that roughly 20 percent of the population was middle class. Economic expansion increased the opportunities available to the able and ambitious. The rapid increase in government employment contributed both to the size of the middle class in absolute numbers and to the group's political awareness. The rise of a middle class whose interests were not those of the rural oligarchy transformed national politics.[2]

Businessmen, professionals, clerical employees, mid-level bureaucrats and managers, army officers, and teachers comprise the middle levels of society. They constitute a diverse group, often poorly defined in terms of both self-identity and criteria for membership. At a minimum, an individual has attained a certain level of education (at least a secondary school degree), practices an occupation that does not require manual labor, and manifests proper manners and dress to be considered middle class.[2]

The upper echelons frequently identify with and emulate the elite. By contrast, the lower levels of the middle class often make common cause with the more prosperous segments of the working class. The cleavage between these two groups—a prosperous, upper-middle class oriented toward the elite and a less economically secure lower group often allied with the more privileged sectors of the working class—is reflected in lifestyle, patterns of association, and political loyalties.[2]

In addition to the economic division, an ethnic component exists in the ranking of the various levels of the middle class. In general, individuals become more "white" and less obviously mestizo farther up the social ladder. In addition, the middle class is ethnically more diverse than other groups. Over the years, immigrants from southern Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere in Latin America arrived to take advantage of expanding economic opportunities on the Costa. These immigrants form the core of Ecuador's commercial interests.[2]


Until the early 1950s, peasant families formed the vast majority of the populace. Historically, these families were isolated from national society, a pattern reinforced by the nature of traditional rural social life. Social arrangements aimed at self-defense limited the intrusions of outsiders. The individual "nested" within the protective layers of family, kin, neighborhood, and village.[2]

Peasant links to city, region, and nation were mediated through powerful outsiders, such as foremen, landowners, merchants, priests, or law enforcement officials. Such relations were typically exploitative to the peasant, but they were also multistranded—however uneven the exchange, the two parties were linked by more than just the naked self-interest of the powerful.[2]

At the center of the peasant family's life and livelihood stood access to land. Landholding not only assured the family subsistence, but also defined its status within the community. Adult participation in village social life demanded land; nonholders remained peripheral to the most significant aspects of the community's social life, such as participation in justice.[2]

Elite control over most land, however, left those at the bottom of the social pyramid with limited options and created the classic latifundio-minifundio (small landholding) complex. Large landholders monopolized the most desirable holdings and left marginal lands to peasants. Sierra haciendas extended from valley floor to mountain crest. The fertile valley bottoms were assigned to hacienda production whereas the steeper lands went to peons. Costa plantation owners reached the same end by controlling riverine land with ready access to markets.[2]

Historically, the traditional Sierra hacienda engaged in mixed livestock and crop production and relied on a "captive" labor force. On the eve of land reform in the 1960s, about two-thirds of all farmers owned some land, but still remained dependent to varying degrees on haciendas. Haciendas regulated access to land mainly through the huasipungo system. The huasipunguero or concierto peon was a resident laborer who received a plot of land in return for labor on the hacienda and domestic service in the landlord's household. Although precise terms of tenure varied from valley to valley and from time to time, they were typically disadvantageous to the peon. The huasipunguero usually had to provide four days of work per week to the hacienda as well as domestic service—an especially onerous obligation that required both husband and wife to work full-time at hacienda maintenance for a specified period. Finally, peons had to participate in collective work parties during planting and harvesting.[2]

A variety of subsidiary arrangements provided an auxiliary supply of laborers. Peasants from neighboring free communities often negotiated for the use of hacienda firewood, water, and pastures. These peasants, known as yanaperos, typically worked one or two days per month and helped out at planting and harvest times. Other peasants worked hacienda lands through some type of sharecropping arrangement. Some casual wage laborers or skilled specialists were employed as production dictated, but these constituted a very minor part of the hacienda's total labor force.[2]

The classic huasipungo system continued in use in the 1960s in relatively remote but well-populated valleys. Near towns, where other employment was available, smaller holdings and more diverse tenure arrangements typically prevailed. Merchants and other townsmen frequently owned small parcels of land, which peasants worked through sharecropping agreements. Typically, the sharecropper had lands of his own nearby; he provided labor, draft animals, tools, seed, and fertilizer. The landowner and sharecropper split the harvest.[2]

Landowners who wished to exploit the growing urban market (especially for dairy products) found it more profitable to consolidate their holdings and sell the less desirable plots to their peons. This process of transferring marginal hacienda land to peasants was most evident in Pichincha, Imbabura, and Carchi provinces. Elsewhere (in Chimborazo and Cayambe, for example) landlords simply evicted peons and refused to compensate them, treatment that fueled peasant unionization drives.[2]

Sharecropping and wage labor arrangements historically prevailed on the export-oriented Costa plantations. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a cacao boom occurred in the Costa. Sharecroppers on cacao plantations cultivated the crop in exchange for advances on the harvest. Plantation owners controlled most marketing channels; their economic clout came not merely from landholding, but because rental agreements typically obliged the sharecropper to sell at terms set by the landlord.[2]

Landlords' effective control over sharecroppers declined following the 1922 blight of the cocoa crop. Sharecroppers either purchased their plots, simply assumed control of them, changed the terms of their rental agreements, or they moved onto unoccupied land. As cocoa prices rose in the 1950s, however, landowners attempted to reinstate their control. Tenants responded with efforts to unionize and, by the early 1960s, with land invasions and rent strikes. Workers on banana plantations, which developed in the 1950s employing wage labor, also tried to unionize.[2]

Land reform legislation in the 1960s and the 1970s aimed at eliminating minifundio plots under 4.8 hectares and subjected absentee landholders to the threat of expropriation. The threat prompted some landlords to sell off at least a portion of their holdings; the main beneficiaries were peasants who could muster sufficient resources to purchase land. Land reform also eliminated the various demands for time that landlords had placed on peasants. By 1979, however, when most expropriations were completed, less than 20 percent of peasant families and 15 percent of agricultural land had been affected by agrarian reform. The legislation did little to change the structure of landholding, which remained roughly as concentrated in the mid-1970s as it had been in the mid-1950s. Nearly 350,000 farms contained less than five hectares—the minimum experts considered necessary to support a family. Almost 150,000 plots were less than one hectare.[2]

The degree of land fragmentation in the Sierra added to the problems of poorer farmers. Andeans had long preferred some dispersion of their lands in order to take advantage of the diversity in microclimates in the region and to limit the risks to any given field. A family might have as many as twenty to thirty small fields scattered around a village. In addition to the poor farmers, there were more than 220,000 landless laborers whose situation was even more tenuous.[2]

For the mass of small producers, agrarian reform simply increased the amount of time available to work on their own holdings. Most had so little land, however, that their own farms could hardly absorb the added labor. Some peasants, especially in the northern Sierra around Otavalo, supplemented their farming with profitable crafts production. Other families produced items such as bricks and tiles for which there was a local market. In these instances, then, additional time afforded a measure of prosperity. A survey of Sierra families in the early 1980s found, however, that fewer than 10 percent earned any of their income from traditional rural crafts. Instead, families with sufficient resources might purchase a small truck and market agricultural products.[2]

The mass of small farmers were not so fortunate; those who did not have any plots to work or whose plots were too small to provide subsistence had to seek wage labor, since land reform regulations had deprived them of the option of working on haciendas as peons or sharecroppers. By the mid-1970s, wages, not agricultural products, had become the largest portion of small farmers' income. As nonagricultural employment expanded during the oil boom, peasant laborers increasingly chose urban employment over agricultural work. Fully one-third of all rural Sierra families surveyed in the early 1980s had at least one member working away from the family landholdings. Peasant laborers had enjoyed a measure of well-being during the economic growth of the 1970s. Both the construction and the service sectors expanded apace and cushioned land-poor peasants. The economic downturn that occurred in the 1980s, however, hit wage earners particularly hard and severely limited employment opportunities.[2]

In the late 1970s, analysts estimated that between 370,000 and 570,000 rural Ecuadorian families lived in poverty. The worst levels of Sierra poverty were found in Chimborazo Province. Poverty in the Sierra correlated with altitude: the higher the family's holdings, the more limited its production options and the greater its poverty. Access to modern transportation was a main determinant of farm income in the Costa. The poorest coastal areas were found in isolated settlements, fishing towns, and villages in Esmeraldas Province.[2]

The emergence of crafts as a major component in some peasant families' livelihood created the potential for intergenerational conflict. Children learned new production techniques in school that sometimes increased their own earning power beyond that of their parents. As some family members sought wage labor farther from home, those remaining relied more heavily on nonfamily wage laborers to assist with farming. Cooperative work exchanges declined in favor of hired casual labor.[2]

The increased pressure on land also sharpened disputes about inheritance and divisions among siblings. Traditionally, inheritance provided the main means of access to land. Individuals began receiving parcels of land from their parents at marriage. Without sufficient land, a couple could not fulfill the wider obligations of sharing and reciprocity that were part of communitywide fiestas. With less land available, moreover, parents tended to favor the youngest son—the child who would stay at home and care for them in their old age. Older siblings increasingly fended for themselves or depended on the largess of the younger sibling.[2]

The need for wage labor in the Sierra reinforced traditional patron-client ties. Former peons found themselves and their children dependent on powerful and influential outsiders as they had once been on landowners. Clientalistic bonds linked the powerless with those who could help them in finding work, emergency loans, and other forms of assistance.[2]

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the government pinned most of its hopes for a relief of rural poverty not on land redistribution but on colonization of relatively underpopulated regions, especially the Oriente. By the late 1970s, the Ecuadorian Institute of Agrarian Reform and Settlement (Instituto Ecuatoriano de Reforma Agraria y Colonización, IERAC) had awarded 2.5 times more land in areas of new settlement than it had redistributed in agricultural reform zones. Further, colonists normally received a forty- to fifty-hectare parcel in contrast to the minifundio typically awarded former sharecroppers or huasipungueros. Land distribution in the Oriente was more equal than in either the Costa or the Sierra. The average Oriente holding in the mid-1970s was thirty hectares. Farms from 10 to 100 hectares—65 percent of all holdings—accounted for 83 percent of the agricultural land.[2]

Migrants to the Oriente were typically males between the ages of twenty-five and forty with little land in their home communities. They began homesteading with a small amount of savings accumulated through agricultural wage labor. Migrants cleared as much land as they could on their parcel and brought their families to join them as soon as possible. As savings were exhausted, migrants had frequent recourse to wage labor either for oil companies or for more established settlers.[2]

The Oriente's poorly developed transport and marketing infrastructure severely constrained Sierra migrants. Settlements typically consisted of a series of long, narrow parcels of land strung along both sides of a road. Roadside land was at a premium; as it was claimed, subsequent settlers repeated the same pattern of narrow rectangular holdings behind those already established. In the more heavily settled areas, homesteads stood four to six properties deep by the late 1970s. Colonists at farthest remove were six to ten kilometers from an all-weather road—a significant impediment in marketing their crops and increasing family income.[2]


The urban lower class had its roots, as a distinct social group, in the artisans of colonial society. Artisans were ethnically and socially separate from the mass of Indian laborers employed in the textile factories. Typically lower-class Spaniards or mestizos, artisans provided the urban elite with finished goods, especially luxury items. They were politically powerless. The local municipal council (cabildo) controlled the movement of artisans from their city of residence and regulated the details of workshop organization, labor practices, prices, and production.[3]

The urban working class took on its contemporary configuration with the onset of industrialization in the twentieth century. Manufacturing remained heavily in the hands of artisans, but largescale industries such as food processing, textiles, and the railroads began to employ significant numbers of workers.[3]

A renewed industrialization drive beginning in the 1950s, increased levels of rural to urban migration, and the oil development of the 1970s all contributed to the growth and diversity of the contemporary urban working class. Workers in stable, well-established enterprises represented the most heavily unionized portion of the lower class and counted as an articulate, well-organized voice in political affairs. These employees earned steady wages and received the benefits of social security and worker protection legislation.[3]

Few workers enjoyed such benefits, however; the vast majority were classified as artisans or self-employed. Artisan firms ran the gamut from small, family-run businesses to middling manufacturing enterprises employing as many as thirteen workers. Self-employment typically offered little in the way of economic security. The mass of street vendors, carpenters, tailors, painters, and the like worked long hours for low earnings. In the mid-1970s, nearly onequarter of peddlers were classified as living in poverty; more than 30 percent of craftsmen and artisans also fell below the poverty line.[3]

In addition to economic differences, the various segments of the working class were divided in other ways. Clerical workers and most white-collar workers considered themselves as superior to the rest of the working class because of education and, frequently, ethnic affiliation. The needs of wage earners for benefits and a living wage often conflicted with the interests of the more prosperous artisans, who needed to hire cheap labor.[3]

The volume of permanent and temporary migration from the 1960s to the 1980s changed the configuration of the urban working class. Temporary was a relative concept for many migrants: for example, surveys of Quito temporary construction workers in the early 1980s found they had worked in the city for an average of six years. Migrants followed a well-trod path to urban employment, relying on fellow villagers and kin who had made the transition earlier.[3]

The informal sector offered a haven of sorts to many unskilled and uneducated migrants and first-time job seekers. Although fiercely competitive and usually poorly remunerated, it fit with the limited capital commanded by most of these workers. It cost relatively little to build a kiosk and stock it with secondhand goods, clothes, newspapers, and the like. Some ambulatory vendors or kiosk sellers obtained higher-cost items on consignment. Only a minimal cash outlay was required to repair electrical appliances in a corner of one's home or to do laundry or cook and sell food. Such endeavors also permitted the use of unremunerated family labor and, for women, meshed well with the demands of child care. Migrants also gained an entry into the city by selling fruits and vegetables from their villages.[3]

The construction boom fueled by oil development in the 1970s generated considerable employment for temporary migrants to Quito. Labor contractors congregated at certain well-known meeting places in the city to gather the workers they needed. Construction offered unskilled recent male migrants (and minimally educated first-time job seekers in general) positions that were poorly remunerated, insecure, nonunionized, and untouched by most worker protection legislation. Nonetheless, such work provided the beginning of an urban livelihood. A fortunate migrant might form compadrazgo (the set of relationships between a person or couple, their parents, and their godparents) ties with a labor contractor—thus obtaining a better chance at regular employment. Some seemingly menial jobs, depending on the individual's circumstances, offered significant advantages. To receive a hut on the job premises in order to guard the construction materials and tools at night, for example, solved the worker's housing dilemma and allowed him to bring his wife, who then could earn income by cooking and washing for other laborers. Migrants who stayed in the city usually became master craftsmen in a construction trade, but some, especially those who remained identifiably Indian, often remained in menial employment.[3]

Both temporary and permanent migrants sought to maintain ties with families in the countryside. Temporary migrants' work schedules remained tied to the agricultural cycle. Those workers returned home for planting and harvest and, whenever possible, weekend visits. A migrant's involvement in farm work was a sensitive barometer of his or her ultimate intentions. An end to routine participation in the agricultural cycle marked completion of the gradual switch from temporary to permanent city dweller. Although most migrants did not send remittances home, those who did increased the earnings of a one- to five-hectare plot by an average of one-third. Even permanent migrants occasionally returned to the village for the local patron saint's feast. If a migrant had enough money, he or she bought land—typically leaving the holdings to be farmed by a relative.[3]

Workers made some gains during the economic expansion of the 1970s. Employment was plentiful, and earnings generally kept pace with inflation. Even this prosperity was relative, however; in 1975, for example, 43 percent of the urban work force received less than the minimum wage. The economic crisis of the early and mid1980s hit the working class particularly hard. The number of workers totally unemployed reached 10 percent in 1986. Those classified as "subemployed by income" rose from 29 percent of the work force in 1970 to 40 percent in 1980. By the end of 1986, the average worker's salary met roughly half of a family's basic needs.[3]

See also


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